Bertrand Russell Essays

For your edification tonight, I present three essays by old Bertie, in audio form. A couple of hours of listening that might expand your mind.

(It’s not him doing the reading–his voice, which I may share with you later–was not nearly as appealing as this reader’s.)

The essays are:

  • What I Believe: This is the big one–Russell outlines what he believes. This is a lengthy, and entertaining, build-up to “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge”, without needing to abandon reason, or invent God.
  • Why I Am Not A Christian: This essay does what it says on the tin. You can read a text copy online as well.
  • A Free Man’s Worship: A piece Russell wrote when he was young, that he came over time to somewhat dislike for it’s literary overindulgences. He also came to reject the Platonic ideals that Young Russell espouses in there1. There’s some pretty poetic , if florid, bits in the piece, though. You can also read this one in text form online.

It occurs to me, reading the conclusion of that last one, that Russell’s early idea of a what a free man can believe lines up pretty much identically with what Lovecraft uses as the basis for the existential horror underlying his work. Both men look at a stark, uncaring universe, that doesn’t give a shit about them, and respond in very different ways. Lovecraft sees this as a fundamentally horrific idea, where as Russell sees a kind of glory in the fact that this leaves you free to build what you can in the face of this absolute universal apathy. Here’s that ending:

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

Or, if you want to download the essays for later listening:

  1. Changing your mind when you learn new facts, or come to new conclusions while considering something is a sign of intelligence. Sticking to an original idea in the face of every new fact or line of reasoning is… well, Bush-like.(back)

  2 comments for “Bertrand Russell Essays

  1. September 14, 2007 at 12:20 am

    Okay, you gotta do the Russell-Lovecraft mashup.

    I also imagine essays like “Why I Do Not Worship Fabulous Monsters of Abhorrent Grotesqueness and Malignity, Half Ichthyic and Half Batrachian in Suggestion”

  2. September 14, 2007 at 8:40 am

    Now you’ve got me thinking about what would happen in a story where Russell is exposed to the Cthulhu mythos. I expect he would go mad, but not in the gibbering, useless way. Rather I expect he would try to find a set of axioms from which he could build a system that would explain his experiences, and some of those axioms would be so much at odds with consensus reality that “normal” people would see him as insane.

    Don’t forget, Russell’s a deep formal logician. As such, he’s used to holding contradictory or paradoxical premises–things that “make no sense” in a more common sense view–in his head and working with them to arrive at correct, if equally “meaningless” in some sense, answers. Hell, to most people formal logic alone is probably enough to make someone seem insane, and explanations of it could drive certain people mad. Heh.

    Actually, I suspect he’d end up being one of those powerful Mythos sorcerers, although he would see it more as symbol manipulation or something.

    Looking at some of the titles in Russell’s bibliography, it’s easy to imagine the more sinister versions of these books that would have resulted in that world. Some of the essays above would obviously be different in content, but also imagine how these titles would have turned out:

    • The Conquest of Happiness
    • Power: A New Social Analysis
    • Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits
    • Satan in the Suburbs
    • Nightmares of Eminent Persons
    • Has Man a Future?

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This work by Chris McLaren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada.